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ADA Court Ruling Shocks Employers - Reassignment may be a Reasonable Accommodation

by Martin Salcedo, Esq. - The Human Equation on 10/17/2012

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued United Airlines since disabled employees who could no longer do their jobs had to compete for vacant positions instead of being automatically reassigned. According to the EEOC, this practice violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

When the EEOC made a similar argument to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2000, the Court held that the ADA does not require an employer to reassign a disabled employee to a job for which there is a better applicant—provided it is the employer's consistent and honest policy to hire the best applicant for the particular job in question.

Undeterred, the EEOC again asked the Court to answer the same question. This time around, the EEOC got a different answer.

According to the Court, its 2000 ruling did not survive an intervening Supreme Court decision which noted that preferences will sometimes be necessary to achieve the ADA’s basic equal opportunity goal. As a result, the Court changed its mind and held that the ADA does require that an employer reassign employees with disabilities to vacant positions for which they are qualified, provided that such accommodations are ordinarily reasonable and do not present undue hardship to that employer.

This means that whenever a requested accommodation in the form of a job reassignment is claimed to violate an employer’s rule or policy, the following two-step approach must be taken.

  1. The employee needs to show that a job reassignment is ordinarily reasonable, which according to the Supreme Court, would normally be the case. However, if the accommodation is not shown to be reasonable, the employee can still prevail by showing that the accommodation is within reason under the particular circumstances of the case.
  2. If the accommodation is shown to be reasonable, the employer must prove that granting the accommodation would cause undue hardship under the particular circumstances of the case.

Even though the Seventh Circuit’s ruling does not create a requirement for reassignment in every case, the EEOC is pleased with the outcome. According to the EEOC’s General Counsel, “The court’s decision will have far-reaching benefits for individuals with disabilities.”

Another EEOC attorney added that, “Congress clearly intended to ensure that employees with disabilities remain productive workers even when they can no longer do their current jobs due to disability—as long as reassignment is possible and poses no undue hardship. With its decision, the Seventh Circuit joins the D.C. and Tenth Circuits in implementing Congress's intent."

If you would like to learn more about ADA compliance, take our online course Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Human Equation prepares all risk management and insurance content with the professional guidance of Setnor Byer Insurance and Risk.

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